City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism

Abram Van Engen shows how the phrase “City on a hill,” from a 1630 sermon by Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop, shaped the story of American exceptionalism in the 20th century. Click here for a one-hour video of his talk.

Massachusetts Historical Society Program Director Gavin Kleespies introduces author Abram Van Engen who describes a history of American Exceptionalism that he lays out in his book, City on a Hill.

By tracing the strange history of Winthrop’s speech, from total obscurity in its own day to pervasive use in modern politics, Van Engen reveals the way national stories take shape and shows us how those tales continue to influence competing visions of the country—the many different meanings of America that emerge from a preservation of its literary past.

The author traces how the original sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 was ignored until it was first published in 1838 and not brought to light until the 1940s.

Over the last half century, the idea of America as a City on a Hill came to be used in political discourse, such as in the 1989 farewell speech by President Ronald Reagan.